MIFF ’09—Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009) and Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009)

These reviews originally appeared on a now-defunct version of the website Screen Machine.

Mother

I think with Mother, his fourth feature length work, Bong Joon-ho cements his place as my favourite working director of any nationality. I’ve seen him compared (on the basis of his two previous works; The Host, and Memories of Murder) with Spielberg and Hitchcock, and unlike most such analogies this description manages to be both utterly foolish and somewhat apt. It’s easy to scramble for such names when discussing Bong’s work for two reasons. First, because despite defying most generic narrative descriptions, Bong’s films nevertheless feel like they belong in the thriller tradition in which those two directors made their names. Secondly, because it’s rare to find a director so utterly, even supernaturally, in control of his material, and with such an unerring grasp of timing and audience response. Scene after scene unfolds with strange tonal and formal zigzags, but Bong never seems anything less than confident in his ability to string the audience along. And unlike most other directors who are intent on keeping the audience in their palm (think of, perhaps, Michael Bay or Peter Jackson), Bong’s films feel totally effortless.

While Mother, which follows the frenetic attempts of a woman to exonerate her simple, sweet son of the brutal murder of a teenage girl, may present less immediately engaging, or obvious thematic subtext than the law and order and institutional indictments of The Host and Memories, I feel confident that repeated viewings will illuminate a critical portrait of contemporary Korean family and social dynamics. Regardless, the film’s formal thrills more than make up for this on first viewing. Also interesting is the way Bong recycles scenarios and dynamics from his two previous works: the endlessly compassionate parent guiltily caring for a mentally diminished child; an indifferent police force coercing culpability for a murder out of a simple man-child; staged public re-enactments of crime scenes; unconventional families and absent parents.

Equally exciting is the way Bong carefully replays and recycles moments two or three times, tracking their changing significances. It’s such a simple narrative trick, and often the hallmark of a well-structured script, that I’m surprised it’s something more directors don’t utilise. In particular, observe the progress of a golf club, a box of acupuncture needles, a little-known pressure point on the thigh, and the way a certain name appears; twice humorously, once tragically.

The film also contains my very favourite single shot of the entire festival, perhaps of the entire year. The mother has snuck into the house of her son’s callous friend, suspecting him of framing her child. When he returns home with his girlfriend she is forced to hid in the closet, clutching a piece of potentially damning evidence. Bong plays out a scene of high tension as the two lie post-coital on the floor, and the mother must navigate her way past a forest of half-empty water bottles. As one tips over, Bong, almost outrageously, cuts to a close detail of the water slowly seeping towards the man’s dangling, twitching fingers: so simple, so mundanely hilarious, so stunning. And it got the best audience reaction I heard all MIFF.

Thirst

With Thirst, Park Chan-wook, best known for the excellent Vengeance Trilogy of the past few years (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) takes a welcome step into full on Grand Guignol horror melodrama; only it takes him a bit too long to get there. Park’s best films, particularly Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, are models of dramatic construction; beginning with a simple set-up that slowly, inexorably, spirals down into violence. You come out feeling like you’ve been put through the wringer, and thinking that Park may be a modern master of tragedy. Thirst, on the other hand, fumbles around for its first half, never quite finding its footing, and while it’s never anything less than interesting, you can almost feel it relax in relief when it finally gets its ducks in a row.

The film follows an aimless priest, Sang-hyeon, who volunteers for medical experimentation to help cure the illness that threatens his flock. Just as the deadly, and grotesque, disease is about to kill him, a last minute blood transfusion saves him, and begins to effect strange transformations. Park wisely gets all this vampire business out of the way pretty quickly (it isn’t long before Sang-hyeon is sucking blood out of a comatose patient’s hospital tubes) and moves on to the priest’s desperate, carnal affair with the battered wife of a childhood friend. Here the film becomes a free adaptation of Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, before a not entirely unpredictable narrative turn propels the film into its immensely satisfying conclusion.

Thankfully, even when the film is fumbling around, the two leads, Song Kang-so as Sang-hyeon and Kim Ok-bin as Tae-ju (the wife), keep it engaging. Song (seen also in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Memories of Murder, as well as Park’s Mr Vengeance) seems to be the most effortlessly expressive, and quietly chameleonic, actor working anywhere today. He’s so good you could watch him reading the phonebook quietly to himself. And Kim, whom I don’t believe I’ve seen elsewhere, is incredible; it’s not a coincidence that the film is at its best when she is allowed to dominate. With Tae-ju (weak; naïve; duplicitous; steely; crazy; sexy; totally awesome) she creates my favourite monstrous feminine in a festival that seems unusually full of them (see also, Antichrist).

While the second half cannot satisfactorily tie up Thirst’s myriad narrative, thematic, and tonal loose ends, when it is at its best (as with a relentlessly violent climatic sequence at the couple’s apartment), the film is fabulously sick fun.

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